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Societal and National Interests: From Rousseau and Marx to Thatcher and Obama

Whose Interests are They?

by ANDREW LEVINE

The late Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990, was hardly a deep or lucid thinker.  And unlike Ronald Reagan, her epigone, she wasn’t even our own.

Yet, for the past three and a half decades, American politicians, Democrats and Republicans, almost without exception, have been hell-bent on continuing her work.

It was Reagan’s work too, and he was just as deplorable.  But because she was the more outspoken and thoughtful of the two, and because she led the way, her views, such as they are, warrant more attention.

*   *  *

In an interview with a women’s magazine in 1987, Thatcher declared: “…there is no such thing as society.  There are individual men and women…”  This remark has long enjoyed an almost iconic status.

She had a point too.  Societies are comprised of men and women, and nothing else.

But then, in the same way, it would be true that there are no men and women — because, unless science is very mistaken, people (like everything else) are decomposable (without remainder) into atoms.

Etymologically, “atom” means “indivisible.”  However, it has been known for many decades that the entities that scientists now use “atom” to designate are not, in fact, matter’s most fundamental constituents.  Are there therefore no atoms either?

It has been a tenet of Western philosophy and science since the days of Greek antiquity that matter cannot be divided into constituent parts indefinitely.  If this is right, there must be what the word “atom” implies.  Perhaps someday we will discover precisely what that is; what those real atoms are.

Then, we will be able to say that they, the fundamental constituents, are all there is.  We will be right too – in just the way that Mrs. Thatcher was.

More importantly, we will also be wrong in the way that she was.  We will be wrong because matter at all levels of organization can be just as real as its constituent parts.

What is real is ultimately a matter for science to discover.  If there are social facts that cannot be decomposed into facts about individuals, or if there are phenomena that can only be explained by appealing to irreducibly social causes, then societies are as real as atoms or neutrons or quarks or anything more basic still.

Social theorists have been arguing this point for more than a century; the case is as compelling as can be.

But, of course, gainsaying them was not what the Iron Lady had in mind; she had no interest in inventorying what there is.   In that still remembered interview, she was just doing what she often did: laying down a line on public policy.

Her contention was that, in deciding what is to be done, individuals’ interests should be taken into account, but not society’s.

To arrive at that conclusion, she did not have to deny that societies exist.  If that is what she really meant, it is doubtful that even Tea Partiers would still take her seriously, much less the Clintons or Barack Obama. 

We use “society” to designate a kind of group or collectivity – a very large, all encompassing one.  There is no denying that groups exist, and no reason to regard the kinds of groups we call “societies” differently.

In the modern era, societies are usually individuated politically.  The United States of America is a political entity, a state.  The population that the state rules comprises a society, American society.

The term is often used too to designate “primitive” and pre-modern forms of human organization – tribal societies, feudal societies, and so on.  In those contexts, the political sphere is not clearly differentiated, and so the criteria for individuating societies, for identifying their boundaries, are less clear.  But the idea is no less useful on that account, and neither is what the term describes any less real.

Mrs. Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, but what she meant was surely not as preposterous as that.  She did not mean to deny common sense; nor was she taking a stand against the common understandings of social theorists and anthropologists.

She pressed her point in a misleading and provocative way, but it comes down to a rather pedestrian claim: that states ought not to do much, or anything, to mitigate the vicissitudes of life for individuals in capitalist market societies.

This contention is not remarkable, or even noteworthy, for its account of what is.  If it is remarkable at all, it is only for its mean-spiritedness.

Mrs. Thatcher would leave individuals to their own devices; free to win all they can garner and free to lose all that they have.  Her rationale, it seems, is that, in her view, there is no collective or “societal” interest in correcting market-generated outcomes.

To defend this Scrooge-like conviction, she could have argued in a way that other “conservatives” did around the time of the Thatcher interview.  Their contention was that, notwithstanding the intentions of their defenders, welfare states do more harm than good.

On this view, there may be societal interests that are not reducible to individuals’ interests, and the ones welfare state institutions address — alleviating poverty, for example, or providing health care or assuring income security across life’s stages – may be among them.

But welfare state institutions somehow work to the detriment of the goals they were concocted to promote; they are counter-productive.

Perhaps Mrs. Thatcher was too busy to read the likes of Charles Murray, or perhaps she thought views like his too far-fetched.  Or maybe she was too mean-spirited even to want to help the less well off.   Whatever the reason, she defended anti-welfare state conclusions by pressing – or, since she was not exactly given to reasoned discourse, gesturing towards — a more radical contention.

She said there is no such thing as society, but what she meant, if we read her words charitably, was that there are no collective or societal interests – presumably because, in her view, interests are the sorts of things that only individuals can have.

On this understanding, her thinking is of a piece with the views of early nineteenth century English liberals, the ancestors of today’s “libertarians.”

Like them, Mrs. Thatcher was committed to a position that flies in the face of more compelling accounts of the kinds of interests there are, and the kinds that ought to be taken into account in policy deliberations.

And so, even in a world like ours, where almost the entire political class has fallen back under the spell of free market theology, and where there are capitalists who shower libertarianism’s exponents with all the blessings money can buy, thinking like Mrs. Thatcher’s has never gained much traction in philosophical circles.

To see why this is so, it is instructive to reflect on aspects of the political philosophy of one of the most important thinkers of the modern era, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  His distinction between general and private interests underscores what is at stake.

The ancient Greek atomists held that “atoms,” the fundamental constituents of matter, are radically independent of one another; that what it is to be a particular atom, what that atom is essentially, does not depend on the other atoms with which, as a matter of fact, it interacts.

Rousseau took this metaphor to heart.  A private will, as Rousseau conceived it, aims at a private interest, at the good for an individual viewed atomistically.

Rousseau maintained that, in the state he envisioned in his masterwork, The Social Contract (1762), atomic individualism’s rightful place is in the economic sphere; there, private interests rule.

But in the political sphere, where laws are made, citizens must deliberate as essentially interdependent parts of “ the moral and collective body” that the social contract brings into being.  In Rousseau’s terminology, the sovereign is the citizens viewed collectively; what they govern is the state.

In their deliberations, the questions citizens must address, in Rousseau’s view, is not what is best for me? but what is best for the political entity of which I am an integral part? 

In other words, what is acceptable, and perhaps even obligatory, in the economic sphere is proscribed in the popular assemblies where the sovereign’s will becomes known.   Citizens are not like atoms; they are more like the parts of organisms.  Their identity conditions depend on their relations to one another and to the whole.

What Rousseau made of this idea is debatable, but the intelligibility of its core contention –that there are group interests that are not reducible to the interests of the individuals who comprise the group, and that, in some circumstances, it can be rational for individuals to make these group interests their own — is, or rather ought to be, beyond dispute.

It would be fair to say that, in her better moments, Mrs. Thatcher thought so too, though she seems not to have realized it.

In the same interview where she declared that there is no such thing as society, she went on to say that in addition to individual men and women there are also families.  The implication was that public policy should take their interests into account as well.

But family interests are just Rousseauean general interests writ small.

Imagine the kind of family dear to the hearts of conservatives like Mrs. Thatcher.

What is best for the father, viewed atomistically, would be what is best for the mother, also viewed atomistically, or for the children, only if their private interests coincide or if the father, in this example, values the well-being of the others more than he values his own to such an extent that he sets out to advance their private interests instead of his own.

There is no reason in general why he should, and no reason to think that he would.

Family members have, as it were, two interests at once: their own private interest and the family’s interest.   Usually, they will not coincide.  When they don’t, there is in general no reason to favor one or the other; it all depends on the circumstances.

Group interests are real; and therefore, since societies are groups, societal interests are real too – at least in principle.  The classical liberals got that wrong; Rousseau got it right.

Rousseau was right about something else as well: that it is all but impossible for truly general interests, the interests of entire societies, to be realized or even identified as long as profound and systemic social divisions exist.

Karl Marx agreed; on this point, he followed in the path Rousseau blazed.

As everyone knows, the social divisions of most concern to him were class divisions.   Rousseau led the way there too.  A Rousseauean just state presupposes a classless society.

However Marx went beyond Rousseau – even calling him to account – by addressing the implications of this idea for real world societies.

Of particular note was his contention that, in class divided societies, interests that purport to be general, societal interests, are in reality the interests of particular groups — typically, of the economically dominant class.

This is also true of “national interests.”  Mrs. Thatcher had no problem with those.  She was more than happy to lead her country into pointless wars on their account.

 *  *   *

Nowadays, we hear a lot about the national interest, especially when military ventures are being floated.  In the Age of Obama, that would be almost all the time.

Political discourse is notoriously loose; what political words mean is never very precise.   Even so, it is plain that national interests and societal interests are different, though the expressions are sometimes used interchangeably, and the ideas they express are not always distinct.

Societies are comprised of individual men and women.  Nations are too – in a sense.  But their connection to the men and women who comprise them is more complicated.  Not even Mrs. Thatcher would have suggested that the two are one and the same.

Individuals can be added or subtracted to nations without affecting the nation’s identity.  Indeed, over time, all the members of a nation at any given moment will have passed away, but the nation will not have died – at least not on that account.

Nations exist across time and (sometimes) space in ways that societies do not; they are not eternal, nothing is, but they are typically longer-lived than other human collectivities.

This is because, as Benedict Anderson put it, they are “imagined communities” – cultural constructions, grounded in historical fantasies that resist confutation by the usual rules of evidence.

Some, not all, nations have sought – and sometimes achieved – political self-determination.  But the “nation state” was always more of an ideal than a reality.

In the long course of human history, it is a plain anomaly.   And with “globalization,” the national character of existing nation states is becoming eroded.  Immigration and emigration are doing it in.

Countries, like the United States, that were populated by immigrants of different nationalities, and by slaves and subject indigenous populations, have never been nation states, strictly speaking – though we Americans do sometimes use the words “nation” and “country” interchangeably.

The American – and Canadian and Australian – case is becoming the new normal.  Increasingly, states are holding true to another Rousseauean idea, one put into practice in the American and French Revolutions, according to which states are comprised of citizens — and therefore not of members of the imagined communities with which some, perhaps most, of their citizens identify.

This is why the claim that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, irrespective of their wishes or their places of residence, is jarring.  Not only does it offend advances in political morality achieved centuries ago; it also goes against inexorable historical transformations actively underway.

In any case, those who speak of national interests have seldom been wedded to notions of nationality or nationalism.  When they say “nation,” they usually mean what we Americans sometimes do in ordinary speech, when we are being terminologically sloppy.  They mean “country.”

Again, Mrs. Thatcher’s case is instructive.  The national interest she wanted to promote was the geopolitical interest of the British state.

What kind of interest is that?  And whose interest is it really?

National interests, in the sense Thatcher had in mind, are like the interests of players in games.

Indeed, part of the appeal of the idea is that geopolitics is often like a game; nations, countries, can be winners and losers; and players can improve or weaken their positions.

Between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, European diplomacy was especially like a game; a protracted, seemingly endless, game of chess.  Dominance over parts of the European continent and, towards the end, the acquisition of colonies abroad were the stakes.

The Cold War was like a game too; one with only two players.  One of them, the United States, always enjoyed a disproportionate advantage, though this was not always clear to everyone at the time.

For so-called “realists,” the game metaphor serves as an organizing principle.  In their view, to make sense of geopolitics, we must suppose that states act strategically in order to secure particular advantages relative to each other.  It follows that political leaders ought to fashion their country’s geopolitical policies with that end in view.

Humanitarian interventionists, neoconservatives, even libertarians, as Mrs. Thatcher’s case attests, agree.  They take pains to present their views as novel and fresh but, if the truth be told, they are all realists at heart.  The principal difference is just that the true realists are, for the most part, more intelligent and more clear-headed.  They go about their business more effectively.

However, to strategize, players must have clear objectives.  Now that the Cold War is over, these have come to be in short supply.

For the United States, the problem is becoming acute.  With its politics mired in dysfunction and its economy in decline, the world’s only superpower flounders along without clear objectives — and therefore with increasingly dubious strategic plans.

American policy in the Middle East is a case in point.

As best one can discern, U.S. policy makers seem to have three principal goals:

The first is to protect and defend Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil kingdoms, the better to control the world’s oil supplies.  Because they view Iran as a rival for regional dominance, they also favor their allies in the Persian Gulf in order to keep Iranian influence in bounds.

A second objective is to assure that Israel remains able to do almost anything its leaders want to Palestinians and to the peoples and governments of adjacent and nearby states.

Because the Israelis now find it expedient to depict Iran as an “existential threat,” these objectives overlap.  But they are also at odds inasmuch as there is no love lost between the theocrats and autocrats of the Gulf states and the ethnocrats who rule over the Promised Land.

Finally, under whatever name or guise they deem expedient, U.S. policy makers want to combat political Islam by continuing the Bush-Cheney “war on terror.”

Needless to say, this last objective is in tension with the other two, and the first and second don’t cohere all that well.  But this hardly matters: superpowers can survive inconsistencies.

But they cannot be wildly arbitrary.  Even they must act for reasons.

Why, then, would the United States treat Israel as if it were a semi-detached fifty-first state?  Part of the reason, no doubt, is that it is a reliable military ally in a turbulent part of the world.  But that was much more the case when the Cold War was still on, and when the threat to American regional dominance came from secular nationalist movements.

In today’s world, it is far from obvious that there are sound “realist” reasons for writing Israel a blank check, and for guaranteeing to cover it.

The national interest in this case evidently has more to do with the exigencies of domestic, electoral politics than geopolitical strategizing.  The U.S. backs Israel to the hilt because the Israel lobby controls Congress and the White House, and because Israel’s backers still predominate in the media and in other venues where public opinion is formed.

The Israeli case is extreme but not unique.  There is also Cuba.  On what plausible geopolitical basis can anyone account for the American government’s unrelenting hostility?

Yes, there is “the threat of a good example,” as Noam Chomsky calls it, and the American Goliath is still smarting from having been beaten back by what America’s leaders still regard as a pipsqueak David, unworthy of a superpower’s attention.

But these factors hardly explain the disproportionality of the American response or its more than five decades long duration.  For that, one must look to pressures applied by well-organized interest groups operating out of southern Florida, New Jersey, and other electorally key areas.

At this point too, what reason is there to think that the so-called war on terror has, on balance, enhanced Americans’ security?  It is far more likely that the opposite is the case.

But all the fuss and bother, and all the impingements on individuals’ rights and liberties, have indeed spread enough fear to turn a population that has every reason to dissent, or even rebel, into a pliable and quiescent mass.  Evidently, the war on terror is about domestic politics too.

The Republicans’ strong suit after 9/11 was “security.”  When the Democrats took over in 2009, they were determined not to be outdone.  We are all worse off for their efforts.

That Americans’ security will not be truly enhanced until our government stops propping up retrograde, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and until the United States stops underwriting ethnic cleansing in occupied Palestine, is obvious enough – but also beyond the ken of the prevailing bipartisan consensus.

Who benefits from these and other policy objectives?  Some capitalists do – a perpetual war regime is good for an ever-expanding military-industrial-national security state complex.  And some lobbyists and most members of the political class benefit as well.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are worse off in countless ways – less free, less secure, and, because empires cost more to maintain than they bring in, less prosperous.

Plainly, then, the national interest has little, if anything, to do with the interests of the vast majority of the men and women who comprise society — or who constitute nations.

The national interest presents itself as a general interest, and it is promoted under that guise.  But it is really just an amalgam of the particular interests of the forces that wield state power in international affairs.

That is something we can learn from Margaret Thatcher: from what she did, if not what she said; from what she grasped intuitively, perhaps without understanding what she implicitly knew.

And it is something we should bear in mind the next time our leaders try to drum up support Thatcher-style for “dumb wars” on national interest grounds.  Recall that the expression was Barack Obama’s – back in his pre-Thatcherite days.

Should today’s or tomorrow’s Thatcherite Obama get a hankering to start another dumb war, as he almost did barely a month ago, and if there are no Russians around then to stop him, it would be an especially good time to remind ourselves, in the spirit of William of Occam (1288-1347), not to multiply entities  — super-individual ones especially — beyond necessity.

“Occam’s razor,” as Occam’s plea for extreme ontological austerity is called, was obviously not what Margaret Thatcher had in mind in her 1987 interview, but it is a valuable precept that can be teased out of the muddled pontifications she bequeathed to posterity at that time.

It is the rational core implicit in, but also obscured by, Mrs. Thatcher’s fatally confused – and ultimately indefensible — insistence that “there is no such thing as society.”

How ironic that, properly wielded, that precept can be turned against the Thatcherite (or Reaganite) tendency to favor war, and preparation for war, over policies that benefit individual men, women and, to give the Iron Lady her due, let’s include families too.

Properly applied, it can help an already skeptical public realize what national interests are about, and whose interests they are.

When that awareness takes hold, the current batch of Thatcherite politicians will have a harder time plying their lethal trade and, to the extent they therefore fail, at least ninety-nine percent of us will be better off.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).